This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Proud parents, spouses, siblings and other family members packed the seats at MTSU’s Murphy Center Saturday for two graduation ceremonies to witness a record 2,642 students receive degrees. Tim Bishop of Smyrna was choked up as he described his wife, Shannon Bishop, earning a bachelor’s degree in applied science from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro…The graduates and the audience listened to keynote speeches from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in the morning and MTSU alumnus Pete Fisher, the vice president and general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, in the afternoon.
Moody’s Investors Service has given the recent overhaul of Tennessee’s pension system a vote of confidence, releasing a statement that calls the changes a “credit positive” for the state. Moody’s did not change the state’s credit rating, which is already AAA, but it did say the decision to require new employees to pay into the system would lower the state’s pension costs and future liabilities. Ratings agencies have been among those calling for changes to state pension systems in response to new accounting standards that require state governments to put future liabilities on their books, even if they have more than enough cash to pay out benefits today.
When the governor appointed Jim Henry to lead the Department of Children’s Services three months ago — after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Kate O’Day — Henry stepped into an agency accused of repeatedly failing to protect and care for Tennessee’s children. Law enforcement and child advocates were critical of the agency for not investigating cases of severe child abuse. DCS officials could not seem to keep track of how many children they had investigated who ultimately died.
To the thousands of motorists maneuvering around construction barriers and flashing lights each day, it no doubt seems as if the work to widen Interstate 240 between Poplar and Walnut Grove is running way behind schedule. The Tennessee Department of Transportation now is conceding as much. Originally slated to be finished next month, the project has a new completion deadline of November, said Nichole Lawrence, a department spokeswoman. The reason for the five-month extension has to do with complications that developed as construction crews for the contractor milled away the old pavement, Lawrence said.
Gov. Bill Haslam will probably pass into law a bill that would aid a personal business associate and overrule the city of Gatlinburg’s efforts to regulate moonshine distilleries. City leaders were trying to preserve the family-friendly vibe of the mountain tourist town by limiting the number of moonshine distilleries and controlling where they could locate. But now their regulations probably will be trumped by a new state law that would remove those local limits and, in doing so, also directly help East Tennessee developer Ned Vickers, who has worked with the governor on multiple private real estate deals, including at least one in Gatlinburg. Vickers’ plan to open Sugarlands Distillery on the city’s main tourist drag had been denied by the Gatlinburg City Commission because it would share a property line with Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, violating its distance requirement.
As much as $67 million was spent on lobbying state lawmakers last year while taxpayers spent $38 million on the total operating budget of the Tennessee General Assembly, according to reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission. The commission, which oversees enforcement of state lobbying laws, says in its 2012 report that 525 people registered as lobbyists for 1,639 clients. Both the lobbyists and their clients are required to file two reports per year on compensation paid to lobbyists and lobbying-related expenditures such at TV ads or mailings that urge citizens to contact legislators in support or opposition to a pending bill.
County Commissioner Charlie Baum hopes the Budget Committee on which he serves can find ways over the next few weeks to trim proposed expenditures and prevent a 3.8 percent property tax increase for a $480.2 million budget for 2013-14. “We are going to be exploring areas to cut expenditures, so we can balance the budget without a tax increase,” Baum said during a Friday phone interview. “That’s one of my goals as we go into the next several weeks where we examine each specific budget department by department.”
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West on Saturday welcomed news that Congress may investigate the IRS after the agency admitted it targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. West said the Chattanooga Tea Party is among the 75 groups the agency admitted last week were victims of deliberate bureaucratic foot-dragging. “It’s a scandal. It is the heavy-handedness of a bureaucratic government agency that has gone awry,” West said by telephone. He noted that House Republicans are talking of holding hearings and said people of all political persuasions should support them.
Although she opposes Marketplace Fairness Act, support still rolls in The online sales tax issue has not only divided Tennessee Republicans, but in at least one case, it also has put a lawmaker and her campaign contributors on opposite sides. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, both Republicans, offer the best example. Alexander is one of the Senate’s leading advocates for the implementation of Internet sales taxes, while Blackburn, routinely rated as one of the most conservative members of the House, strongly opposes the idea. Alexander, for his 2014 re-election, has gathered at least $23,000 in campaign contributions from brick-and-mortar retail interests that want their online competitors to have to worry about collecting the taxes as well.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is taking aim at Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying her fundraising efforts and coordination with private entities to implement President Barack Obama’s new health care law “may be illegal.” Alexander, of Tennessee, is the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate committee overseeing health policy. In a Saturday statement, he said Sebelius’ actions should “cease immediately and should be fully investigated by Congress,” and he compared her activities to the Iran-Contra incident, in which a Reagan administration official raised money and sent it to private entities to support Nicaraguan rebels after Congress refused to fund the cause.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Saturday that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius may be breaking federal law by raising money and working with private groups to help roll out the federal health care law “outside of the government.” “Secretary Sebelius’ fundraising for and coordinating with private entities helping to implement the new health care law may be illegal, should cease immediately and should be fully investigated by Congress,” Alexander said.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander won praise last week from a prominent Senate liberal. Alexander, Tennessee’s senior Republican senator, is leading opposition to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to restrict boating and fishing access immediately below the 10 dams the agency operates on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. Area anglers vocally oppose the restrictions, and Alexander, who is seeking re-election next year, has taken up their cause. At a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Corps budget, Alexander slammed the agency over the restrictions and threatened to hold up budget requests if there is no compromise.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday that there has been “just no accountability” within the State Department for its handling of the raid on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The interview came as the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the September raid. The appearance represented Corker’s third national TV appearance in as many days. Fresh off his round of golf with President Barack Obama, the Tennessee Republican went on CBS on Tuesday and CNN on Monday.
If U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper has his way and congressional dysfunction continues, he and his colleagues might never get another dime. Cooper’s proposal to stop federal lawmakers’ pay if the United States defaults on its debt was approved by a large majority of House members Thursday. It’s similar to a bipartisan plan he previously shepherded into law, commonly known as “No Budget, No Pay,” that will keep members of Congress from getting paid if they fail to pass a budget. The restriction applies to this year only, though he had hoped to make it more permanent.
More than 150 gun safety and gun control activists, including at least three elected officials, took out a full-page ad in today’s Tennessean to urge readers to ask Tennessee’s senators to rethink their opposition to expanded background checks. The people listed in the advertisement include Nashville Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and Metro school board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering. Gun safety activist Linda McFadyen-Ketchum said the ad cost $8,000, which also paid for an online link the group can share.
Late afternoon Thursday, on the suburban wing of Shelby County’s public education office complex, David Stephens pondered how to move a large, old-fashioned clock from his former office to a new one he’s occupying as a key member of the cabinet helping interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson complete the merger of Memphis and suburban schools. For Stephens, deputy superintendent for suburban Shelby County Schools, the symbolism was hard to miss — time is running out on the county’s old public schools order.
The Scott County School Board passed an amended fiscal year 2013-14 budget that avoids teacher layoffs while giving employees their first salary increase in more than five years. The roughly $33 million budget, which was adopted unanimously, includes $4.8 million in required local funding. That amount excludes approximately $362,000 in additional local funding requested by the school board. In addition to the local funding, the budget contains $25.1 million in state funding and $1.9 million federal funding, which represents an 18 percent drop from this year.
Detroit may be broke but it will soon have a first-rate motor pool, featuring 23 new ambulances and a fleet of 100 new police cars. Some city parks also are getting tender loving care. New fruit trees and shrubs have been planted, and mowing crews are beginning to make the rounds to keep the green spaces tidy. One of the surprising things about Detroit’s descent toward insolvency — so dire that a state-appointed emergency manager recently arrived to take over — is that public services haven’t collapsed as completely as some might have expected. But that’s not because city departments are functioning as usual. They’re not.
Health care providers in Texas could soon collect or verify patient information by swiping that patient’s driver’s license. The measure allowing such data collection is one of a handful that the Texas Medical Association is pushing this legislative session to help modernize medical practices. The association is also backing bills that would standardize preauthorization forms used by health plans for prescription drugs and health care services. “A lot of these things are easy fixes,” said Dr. Michael Speer, president of the Texas Medical Association.
Gestalt — an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. I have always loved this word, this idea. Like many concepts, it can be stretched to embrace thoughts beyond its origins (which, in this instance, is psychology). The Nashville Metro area gestalt is reflected in several ways that have been reported in the past couple of weeks: Forbes magazine just ranked us No. 2 for best cities for jobs; AOL.com says Nashville is America’s New Boomtown City; Bankrate.com says Tennessee is the best state to retire to; and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited the Nashville metropolitan area as 2012 champion in job creation for 1 million plus metros.
House-Senate hostility is nothing new in Legislatorland, but the basis of tensions that led to the flare-up in the waning days of the first Republican supermajority session just might be more fundamental — and thus more enduring — than the squabbles in bygone days among Democratic leaders. For one big thing, both House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey would like to be governor. Ramsey, who already has the title of lieutenant governor, tried to scratch the “lieutenant” part in 2010 but lost in the Republican primary to Bill Haslam.
There is a lot to be said for reinstating a 4.6 percent pay cut for Memphis police, simply because of the job’s heavy demands and the need to make it as attractive as possible to qualified applicants with impeccable credentials. But the proposal to restore the pay cut, approved May 3 by a City Council impasse committee that seemed to have been motivated by a police union billboard campaign slamming the level of safety that Memphis visitors may expect, must be balanced against other budgetary requests that the council members must confront.
The U.S. Senate last week voted to restore balance to the nation’s retail market and to sales tax collections nationwide with the passage of the Marketplace Fairness Act. Tennessee’s Republican senators — Lamar Alexander, one of the bill’s key sponsors, and Bob Corker — voted for the bill, which provides a way for states to receive sales tax payments on Internet transactions. The measure passed 69 to 27. The bill now goes to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, where the bogus argument that it constitutes a tax increase might find a more receptive audience.
It’s disappointing to hear that the Tennessee Valley Authority has unplugged its TVA Green Power Providers program, the solar initiative that helped the utility build solar power up to a whopping 1 percent of its electric generation mix. Solar power was just too successful, and people signed on to invest their own money in it so readily that the utility set capacity limits on the solar segment of its renewable energy programs for 2013. That “capacity” was met within the first four months of the year. And the program may not be reopened. TVA officials say they don’t want to “subsidize” solar power.
When the news broke recently about the loss of local prekindergarten classes affecting children from poor families, my heart sank, mainly because of an article I had read in The New York Times Sunday Review only days before. The author of the April 28 article, Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University professor of education and sociology, reports research that spots a trend involving children of the rich and poor that warrants the public’s attention. It’s not just that rich kids, on average, do better in school than poor kids. That fact is well known. What’s news is that this difference has grown substantially over the past few decades.
Since the long, painful debate over health care reform began a few years ago, Americans have tended to split into camps for or against the 2010 Affordable Care Act and a larger role for government. But if there was one thing that most could agree upon, it was the frustration over the cost of medical procedures. Whether the law ultimately will make care as affordable as we’d like is uncertain, but one very positive step was undertaken last week under the act (“Obamacare”), which requires individual hospitals to disclose how much they charge for procedures. Pretty basic, when you think about it — as in “buyer beware.” And yet, we haven’t been thinking it, for a long time.